Variations on Beowulf, Feminist and Christian

“Why not Face / the Boss, and at Death Seek / Salves, not Scars?”

Kendall Gunter / 11.3.20

What Beowulf should have known was that he was a sinner just like Grendel. If they had both trusted in Christ as their personal lord and savior, Beowulf wouldn’t’ve had to kill Grendel, and they could have avoided all this mess.

My classmate finished speaking, smiled, and sat down. My sixth-grade homeschool co-op English teacher blinked. “Of course,” she squinted, “Grendel isn’t actually human; he’s a monster.”

As much as middle-school me believed everyone needed a personal relationship with God, I disagreed with my classmate’s earnestness. It was just a story after all, so I knew I had to read it on its own terms. But re-reading the poem now, I realize that my classmate saw something in the epic we had missed. Consider how the poet describes Grendel’s attacks on the mead-hall of the Danish (here called “Scylding”) king Hrothgar:

… He howl-haunted
the hall at night, the gold-grifter’s throne throwing
shade at him, his soul burning with dark flame.
He couldn’t touch the treasure, or tame
his yearning, for he’d been spurned by God.

Times were hard for the prince of the Scyldings, too,
heart-shattered, battered spirit spent.
Men came to advise, bringing pithy plots
and plans to arrest Hrothgar’s awful guest.
They bent themselves to idols, and offered up
their own spells, that a soul-slayer might suddenly
show up and save them. That was their nature,
these heathens, hoping at the wrong heavens,
remembering Hell, but nothing else.
They knew no true Lord, no God, no Master.
They, too, were cursed, yet thought themselves clear.
Bro, lemme say how fucked they were,
in times of worst woe, throwing themselves
on luck rather than on faith, fire-walkers
swearing their feet uncharred, while
smoke-stepping. Why not face
the Boss, and at death seek
salves, not scars?

While my teacher and the rest of my homeschool classmates were enforcing an utterly godless secular agenda on Beowulf, my not-so-cerebral classmate had picked up on the divine drama animating the poem. Grendel may be evil, ill-fated, and the spawn of Cain, but we still have to recognize ourselves alongside him. The poet puts the “human” Danes in the same category of accursedness as Grendel, and then says it’s no excuse for ignoring God, who can actually help us. Why not face the Boss indeed?

My classmate was telling my class what the poet sang to his hearers: Can’t you see how you went wrong? Both were pious Christians longing to evangelize dead pagans; since they couldn’t, they moralized their peers. Ironically, a similar moralism is at work today in many readings of old literature, but it’s not (directly) Christian. It’s the subject of Alan Jacobs’ recent Breaking Bread with the Dead, on why and how to both love and censure old literature. Consider his take on feminist literary criticism, caught between enjoying good art and chastising its patriarchal entanglements. He paraphrases the scholar Patrocinio Schweikart:

she suggests, you should look for what she calls a “utopian moment” — a moment when something deeply and beautifully human emerges from that swamp of patriarchal ideology. Another phrase she uses for this is the “authentic kernel,” something perhaps hidden deep inside the book that speaks to you, that articulates an experience you can share. From this point on you read in a double fashion. You don’t silence the part of you that sees the problems with the book, its errors, its moral malformations; neither do you silence the part of you that responds so warmly to the “utopian moment.”

Oddly enough, this creative doubleness may be easier for writers than for readers. Sometimes when a story both entrances and offends you, you’d love to alter it or add to it in ways that redress its imbalances. If you’re a writer, you can do this. This is, importantly I think, one of the chief prompts for fan fiction, which, despite its name, doesn’t just celebrate the work it draws on: sometimes it extends, sometimes it even corrects them.

Jacobs gives the examples of Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, highbrow fan fic of the Aeneid (itself highbrow fan fic of the Odyssey). She writes the novel to give a voice to a key but silent female character. Readers can sense Le Guin’s just discontent about women’s muteness, but they can also sense her generosity — an important word for Jacobs — in letting the Aeneid speak to her because, despite its male tunnel vision, it is still extraordinary art.

Which is also what Maria Dahvana Headley has done, in her up-to-the-minute translation of Beowulf quoted above. Like any good modern English rendering, it mimes the Anglo-Saxon alliteration, but it’s not quite the sophisticated verse of Seamus Heaney. For this and so many reasons, Headley is a certifiable badass. (The most obvious proof: her photograph.)

Headley says, since childhood, she’s been rooting for Grendel’s mom, but her defense of Beowulf’s second opponent isn’t mere preference. The text itself, Headley notes, muddles any clear monster/human dichotomy. True, the character’s son is a very tall cannibal, but he might get that from Dad (who’s not in the picture). More to the point, the poem’s metaphors for the mother parallel its metaphors for Beowulf. As she says, even his name, “‘Bee-Wolf,’ as in ‘honey-eater,’ as in ‘Bear,’” suggests beastliness, but everyone assumes he’s just a man. For Headley, these boundaries, of gender and sympathy, are too rigid, not only for characters but also for the poem:

Beowulf is usually seen as a masculine text, but I think that’s somewhat unfair. … While there are many examples of gendered inequality in the poem, there is no shortage of female power.

Grendel’s mother, my original impetus for involvement with this text, is almost always depicted in translations as an obvious monster rather than as a human woman — and her monstrosity doesn’t typically allow even for partial humanity, though the poem itself shows us that she lives in a hall, uses weapons, is trained in combat, and follows blood-feud rules.

… Grendel’s mother doesn’t behave like a monster. She behaves like a bereaved mother who happens to have a warrior’s skill.

Headley wants to intervene in the history of translations, to help us see our hidden affiliation with those we’ve considered indecent. She points out that the same word is translated as “wretch, or monster” for the mother (and Grendel, and the dragon) but “hero” for Beowulf, that translators have imposed “claws” where “fingers” make more sense (since the mother fights with a knife). Grendel’s mother is less an “inhuman troll-wife” (Tolkien) or “Monstrous hell-bride” (Heaney) and more a “formidable noblewoman” (Headley).

Toni Morrison says this kind of revision, of “seeing again” the poem, is a distinctly modern project. “Contemporary society … is made uneasy by the concept of pure, unmotivated evil, by pious, unsullied virtue, and contemporary writers and scholars search for more.” Like Le Guin’s Lavinia, she gives John Gardner’s Grendel as an example, a novel narrated from the “monster’s” perspective. Before her translation, Headley also novelized the epic, from the mom’s perspective. We could say that, like many modern, feminist projects, these are Christian projects, too, belatedly finding their true voices to chastise dualist moralism. Trying to shore up our own purity (non-monstrosity) is a delusion doomed to fail. Perhaps identifying with our enemies welcomes not only them but our true, complicated selves.


3 responses to “Variations on Beowulf, Feminist and Christian”

  1. ceej says:

    I love that language of “seeing again.” I think everyone can benefit from that, in seeing our neighbors, and ourselves.

  2. Robbie says:

    Fantastic, Kendall: “Trying to shore up our own purity (non-monstrosity) is a delusion doomed to fail. Perhaps identifying with our enemies welcomes not only them but our true, complicated selves.”

  3. Ian Olson says:

    Kendall, I’ve reread this three times now and I love it so much. If nothing else, I suppose Headley’s translation can be viewed as an imputation of righteousness into the ambiguity of old Anglo-Saxon but perhaps I’ve exposed myself— maybe I’m unwilling to depart from Tolkien and Heaney just yet because of my own patriarchal tunnel vision! However the truth is apportioned amongst factors known and unknown, this piece is fantastic. ????

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